At the top of her game, Katie Ledecky wades into pool of potential endorsements
By RICK MAESE | The Washington Post | Published: April 2, 2018
With her college swimming career behind her, Katie Ledecky stands to make a splash as a professional athlete well ahead of the next Olympics and will likely carry several big-name sponsors into the Tokyo pool with her in 2020. But Ledecky's strategy will be a deliberate one, her new agent said, and she doesn't need to race to build a huge business portfolio right away.
Ledecky announced her decision to turn pro last week and has signed with Dan Levy, head of a Wasserman team that represents several high-profile female athletes. Levy said his new client is unique and can afford to be selective and patient as she considers which brands to endorse.
"It's rare that an athlete turns pro and they have a business on Day 1," Levy said. "We feel we have the luxury — and Katie feels this way, too — in being very strategic and trying to put together a plan first and then find the right partner companies that fit what she wants to do moving forward."
In other words, Ledecky won't race into partnerships for a quick paycheck. She'll have some leverage and can seek long-term deals, perhaps looking for companies that might want to stick with her for the next Olympic cycle as well.
"My goal when it comes to endorsements is to take a balanced approach to my business," the 21-year-old Ledecky said. "I will be seeking the support of sponsors who understand my commitment to training, to my education and to my growth as a person. I also am excited to work with people and companies who understand that they are also investing in my journey to have success in the pool."
Most Olympic athletes embark on a professional career with much less name recognition and a significantly shorter résumé. Ledecky, already a five-time Olympic champion, hits the market at the top of her game, almost guaranteed to be one of the faces of the U.S. team in two years and likely competing in prime time on NBC for several nights in Tokyo.
"She's accomplished so much prior to turning professional that she is in a position to influence a lot of the decisions that will be made going forward," Levy said, "whereas if she was another athlete just turning pro, sometimes you have to compromise a little bit more just to earn a living."
Bob Dorfman, a longtime sports marketing analyst, estimated Ledecky could bring $3 million in endorsement deals heading into the Tokyo Games. In addition to companies focused specifically on swimming (goggles or swimwear, for example) or health and wellness (sports drinks or energy bars), Dorfman said Ledecky could be an attractive spokesperson for lifestyle brands, headphones or even fashion, hair care or cosmetics companies.
Ledecky, who plans to continue studying and training at Stanford, shies away from comparisons to Michael Phelps both in and out of the pool, but for Olympic athletes of all stripes, the decorated swimmer is the high end of the measuring stick when it comes to endorsements. Phelps has an estimated net worth north of $50 million, and analysts said he was earning around $7 million in endorsement money at the height of his career — many times more than many Olympians can ever expect to make.
"He really became an icon of a sport, one of the few Olympians who could do that," said Dorfman, executive vice president of Baker Street Advertising. "Whether she can do that, I don't know. She'll have to be really, really pretty special in the next Games and probably continue onto 2024."
Dorfman sees a parallel between Ledecky and Missy Franklin, who competed as an amateur at the London Olympics in 2012, swam collegiately for two years and turned professional before the Rio Games. While Franklin picked up plenty of big endorsements, her performance as a professional never matched her success as an amateur.
With world championships one year away and the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, Ledecky has shown no signs of slowing. She capped her college career by winning three more NCAA titles last month, giving her eight in two years at Stanford. She'll head to Tokyo as a favorite to win five or more medals, a threat in most of the freestyle distances — the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter races — with a chance to swim in a couple of relays, too.
"It's about timing, it's about performance, it's about striking when you're at the top of your game," Dorfman said.
For two Olympic cycles, Ledecky has been able to focus on training and competitions. She'll now have to juggle corporate appearances, commercials and photo shoots, making sure the new obligations don't hinder her work in the pool. "We will not commit to anything that will negatively impact my performance," she said.
"We understand that the swimming is the most important thing, and that's the platform that everything builds from. I wouldn't say it was really a concern," Levy said of striking the perfect balance. "It was a nonnegotiable. It's what's most important."
Because Ledecky was such a high-profile amateur, she's accustomed to the spotlight and the associated time demands, media requests and obligations to entities such as NBC and USA Swimming. One advantage to turning pro midway through the Olympic cycle is Ledecky has time to adjust to the juggling act well before the Tokyo Games.
"Although I did not have sponsor commitments during those years, I did have many other obligations, and I felt like I was able to create a balance," she said. "I also have been able to observe what has worked for other professional athletes, and the support that I have received from family and friends is crucial."
She could be in the pool competing again later this month in Mesa, Arizona, or perhaps in May in Indianapolis. She'll likely begin conversations with companies focused on athletic and performance gear soon, giving her time to test equipment before the competition season heats up.
In selecting Levy and Wasserman, Ledecky has aligned herself with a team that has found a lot of success with high-profile women's athletes, including soccer stars Abby Wambach, Mia Hamm and Alex Morgan, as well as basketball standouts Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner. For Wasserman, a decorated athlete and ambitious young woman such as Ledecky seemed like a natural fit.
"Katie's such a smart and thoughtful person," Levy said. "You combine that with her excellence in the pool, and you just get an incredible force. I think we are always excited to work with women who are really committed to making a positive impact on the next generation as well."
Levy said because Ledecky already has name recognition and is dominant in a high-profile Olympic sport, he doesn't think she'll be limited to swimming-specific companies and can branch out into other brands. He has no doubt she'll be in demand as Tokyo draws closer.
"There's no question that Katie already transcends the sport of swimming," Levy said, "because she's such an incredible champion, and she represents so much more for a younger generation."